President Joe Biden is ready to warn Vladimir Putin during a video call Tuesday that Russia will face economy-jarring sanctions if it invades neighboring Ukraine as the U.S. president seeks a diplomatic solution to deal with the tens of thousands of Russian troops massed near the Ukraine border.
Biden aims to make clear that his administration stands ready to take actions against the Kremlin that would exact “a very real cost” on the Russian economy, according to White House officials. Putin, for his part, is expected to demand guarantees from Biden that the NATO military alliance will never expand to include Ukraine, which has long sought membership. That’s a non-starter for the Americans and their NATO allies.
“We’ve consulted significantly with our allies and believe we have a path forward that would impose significant and severe harm on the Russian economy,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday in previewing the meeting. “You can call that a threat. You can call that a fact. You can call that preparation. You can call it whatever you want to call it.”
Joe Biden to warn Putin of economic pain if he invades Ukraine
The leader-to-leader conversation — Biden speaking from the Situation Room, Putin from Moscow — is expected to be one of the toughest of Biden’s presidency and comes at a perilous time. U.S. intelligence officials have determined that Russia has massed 70,000 troops near the Ukraine border and has made preparations for a possible invasion early next year.
The U.S. has not determined whether Putin has made a final decision to invade. Still, Biden intends to make clear to the Russian leader that there will be a “very real cost” should Russia proceed with military action, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Biden was vice president in 2014 when Russian troops marched into the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and annexed the territory from Ukraine. Aides say the Crimea episode — one of the darker moment for former President Barack Obama on the international stage — looms large as Biden looks at the current smoldering crisis.
The eastward expansion of NATO has from the start been a bone of contention not just with Moscow but also in Washington. In 1996, when President Bill Clinton’s national security team debated the timing of membership invitations to former Soviet allies Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Defense Secretary William Perry urged delay in order to keep Russian relations on track. Perry wrote in his memoir that when he lost the internal debate he considered resigning.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were formally invited in 1997 and joined in 1999. They were followed in 2004 by Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the former Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Since then, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia have joined, bringing NATO’s total to 30 nations.
A key principle of the NATO alliance is that membership is open to any qualifying country. And no outsider has membership veto power. While there’s little prospect that Ukraine would be invited into the alliance anytime soon, the U.S. and its allies won’t rule it out.
Biden vowed as a candidate to reassert American leadership after President Donald Trump’s emphasis on an “America first” foreign policy. But Biden has faced fierce criticism from Republicans who say he’s been ineffective in slowing Iran’s march toward becoming a nuclear power and that the Biden administration has done too little to counter autocratic leaders like China’s Xi Jinping, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Putin.
“Fellow authoritarians in Beijing and Tehran will be watching how the free world responds,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “And President Biden has an opportunity to set the tone when he speaks with Putin.”
Trump, who showed unusual deference to Putin during his presidency, said in a Newsmax interview on Monday that the Biden-Putin conversation would not be a “fair match,” describing it as tantamount to the six-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots facing a high school football team.
Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter that he and Blinken “agreed to continue joint & concerted action” and expressed his gratitude for the U.S. and allies providing “continued support of our sovereignty & territorial integrity.” Biden himself is expected to speak with Zelenskyy later this week.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Blinken “reiterated the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression.”
The Kremlin has made clear that Putin planned to seek binding guarantees from Biden precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine. Biden and aides have indicated no such guarantee is likely, with the president himself saying he “won’t accept anyone’s red line.”
“It is about fundamental principles established 30 years ago for the relations between Russia and the West,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy expert. “Russia demands to revise these principles, the West says there’s no grounds for that. So, it’s impossible to come to an agreement just like that.”
Beyond Ukraine, there are plenty of other thorny issues on the table as well, including cyberattacks and human rights. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said U.S.-Russian relations are overall in “a rather dire state.”
Both the White House and the Kremlin sought in advance to lower expectations for the call. Both sides said they didn’t expect any breakthroughs on Ukraine or the other issues up for discussion, but that just the conversation itself will be progress.
Biden Expected to Offer Warnings and Alternatives in Call With Putin
President Biden is expected to encourage diplomatic de-escalation over the conflict in Ukraine when he speaks to Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in a video meeting on Tuesday. But Mr. Biden will warn Mr. Putin that if he orders the Russian forces poised at the border to invade Ukraine, Western allies may move to cut Russia off from the international financial system and seek direct sanctions on Mr. Putin’s closest associates, administration officials said.
The meeting, perhaps Mr. Biden’s highest-stakes leader-to-leader conversation since he took office more than 10 months ago, may set the course for Ukraine’s ability to remain a fully independent nation. In the month since Mr. Biden dispatched his C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, to Moscow, Russian forces have encircled Ukraine on three sides and accelerated a cyber and disinformation campaign to destabilize its government, according to American, European and intelligence officials.
Administration officials would not describe the new diplomatic offers in detail, but they appeared to be an effort to alleviate Mr. Putin’s supposed fear that Ukraine is posing a threat to Russia by allying too closely with the West, buying American arms and taking advice from U.S. military officials.
But some of Mr. Biden’s aides are doubtful there is any diplomatic process they can offer Mr. Putin that would dissuade him from his fundamental goal of destabilizing President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pro-Western government in Ukraine. While the troop movements are easily visible on satellite images, Russia is already employing a familiar campaign of disinformation, cyberattacks and military intimidation to unseat the country’s leadership. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Tuesday’s call.
Mr. Burns was sent in part because he was the American ambassador to Moscow during Mr. Putin’s rise to power and is well known to Russian officials. But his warnings to the Russian leader, whom he reportedly spoke to by phone, appear to have been largely ignored, officials say.
A senior American official told reporters in a briefing on Monday that the official U.S. assessment is still that Mr. Putin has not decided whether to conduct a full-scale invasion. But Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden, officials say, come to the conversation on Tuesday, which both men signaled they wanted, with very different agendas.
White House officials have been gaming out a series of scenarios with Mr. Biden, including that Mr. Putin has demands that go well beyond the familiar one that Ukraine can never join NATO. They include a reorientation of Ukraine away from the West and back into Moscow’s orbit.
Mr. Biden must convince Mr. Putin that the administration’s commitment to Ukraine, which it has called “unshakable,” is deep enough to cause tremendous economic pain to Russia — even if, as both men know, American forces would not come directly to Ukraine’s aid. Under discussion are steps as extreme as cutting off Russia’s access to the international financial settlement system, called SWIFT, and a series of restrictions on its banks like those honed in the effort to impose sanctions on Iran.
Russian forces are already deployed in the northeast, the south and the west, suggesting that Mr. Putin is putting together all the elements of a combined ground, cyber and information warfare campaign. The moves have prompted emergency meetings from Brussels to Washington — which may have been precisely what Mr. Putin intended.
At the Pentagon on Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III convened top military and civilian officials, including Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Tod D. Wolters, the head of the military’s European Command, to discuss the Russian troop buildup. Officials said that there was an effort underway to send additional defensive weapons, including anti-tank Javelins, to Ukraine, but that they may be pre-positioned outside the country to avoid giving Mr. Putin a pretext for military action.